JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Legislation promoted by right-wing lawmakers in Israel is raising concern that democratic values are under threat in a country that has long billed itself the only democracy in the Middle East.
One bill could potentially paralyze dovish Israeli advocacy groups by imposing sharp limits on funding they receive from foreign governments, while others could deal a blow to the independence of the Supreme Court, an institution seen in Israel as a watchdog over civil rights.
Nothing has been passed into law and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under international pressure to quash some of the measures proposed by members of his Likud party, has moved to stall one of the more controversial bills.
But critics of the legislation say damage to some democratic rights and the nation’s image has already been done, pointing at three other laws passed in the past year widely seen as anti-Arab and attempts to quash dissent against government policy.
One of these laws already on the books would penalize Arab citizens for teaching about Israel’s birth in 1948 as a “nakba,” or catastrophe, allow courts to revoke citizenship of those charged with “terrorism” and ban calls to boycott Israel or any of its settlements built in occupied territory.
“Anyone who may have fallen into a coma during the period of McCarthyism in the United States might find himself quite comfortable these days in Israel,” said Reuven Hazan, political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, referring to one of the worst eras for political freedoms in America sparked by the hunt for Communist sympathizers led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
“This is an attack on the democratic nature of the state,” Hazan said.
Backers of the latest legislative initiatives which seek to severely restrict funding for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say the money received largely from abroad permits foreign interference in Israel’s internal affairs.
A separate bill calling for an investigation of funding for NGOs passed a separate vote in parliament several months ago.
Critics denounce these bills as bids to mute left-wing groups such as the settlement-watch Peace Now and human rights organizations that document policy toward Palestinians in land they seek for a state.
After complaints from U.S. and European diplomats, Netanyahu last month appeared to bury the legislation in its present form by putting off further cabinet discussion of the proposal.
Yet he has hinted at support for yet another controversial proposal to bar Muslim clerics from publicly summoning the faithful to prayer over loudspeakers, which some Israelis complain are too noisy.
Netanyahu told fellow ministers behind closed doors that some Western nations had noise-control regulations affecting mosques and “there’s no need to be more liberal than Europe,” an official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Criticism of these measures has come from as high up as the government’s attorney-general and President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate for his role in a 1993 deal with the Palestinians.
Peres told Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, this month he was “personally ashamed” at the legislation aimed against NGOs and Arab citizens.
Without explicitly targeting them, the funding measure would mainly affect leftist groups who receive most of their money from U.S. and European governments. Many right-wing Israeli organizations are funded locally or by private donors abroad.
“Foreign governments interfere in our political discourse by contributing huge sums of money generally to one side of the political map, the left side,” said Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis.
Danny Danon, a senior Likud lawmaker and sponsor of the bills in question, is confident they will eventually pass.
“In substance the prime minister is with us on the fact that we must advance the agenda for which we were elected,” Danon said in an interview.
But even some of Israel’s most ardent, long-time conservative supporters have voiced their dismay.
Abraham Foxman, head of the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, which describes itself as dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and defending “democratic ideals and civil rights for all,” called the bills “an assault on basic democratic values.”
Some analysts dismiss the proposals as attempts by Likud legislators to bolster their standing in the right-wing party as it prepares for internal elections next month that could be a harbinger of an early national election, due in 2013.
Foxman, speaking to Reuters in an interview, thought the legislation could be part of a backlash against international criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policies.
He also saw it as a sign domestic issues were filling the vacuum in parliament’s agenda left by the current freeze in talks with the Palestinians on a peace deal, which may require lawmakers’ approval.
“They feel they’re in a bunker and the world is against them so they bunker themselves a bit more,” Foxman said.
While the legislation aimed against NGOs has stirred the most criticism abroad, a separate list of proposals with regard to the operations of Israel’s Supreme Court has raised even more concern at home.
Some of the proposals seek to impose limits for the first time on eligibility to petition the bench, as well as to reduce the tenure period for its top judge and give lawmakers a role in vetting judicial candidates.
Another would require all justices to have served in the Israeli military, effectively barring the country’s Arab citizens from the bench. Under Israeli law, Arabs are exempted from compulsory military service.
While in other countries it is common for politicians to have a role in choosing judges, Israeli justices are picked by a committee of judicial peers.
Israel does not have a constitution -- a void blamed on deep social divisions -- and the high court is often seen as the ultimate defender of civil rights, its independence sacrosanct in a highly politicized society.
In a rare outburst, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch publicly denounced interference with the judiciary as a “delegitimization campaign” that had “reached the point of incitement” against the Supreme Court.
Amnon Rubinstein, a former justice minister and now a law professor at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute, a college near Tel Aviv, described the Court as “a shield protecting Israel.”
“Any attempt to infringe upon the independence of the court is dangerous from every point of view,” he said in an interview.
Rubinstein blamed the controversy on what he called “militant minorities” waging ideological battles across the floors of an increasingly polarized parliament.
Netanyahu has moved to try and quash legislation relating to the courts, telling his cabinet he would bar any efforts “that stand to harm (their) independence.”
Many Israelis have defended the calls for changing the vetting process for justices, and said a more open process may lead to a more ethnically-balanced bench by adding more judges of Sephardic or Middle Eastern descent.
They also point at dissatisfaction among a predominantly right-wing Israeli electorate with some of the decisions the court has made in recent years, including rulings against land seizures for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“I see no attempt being made to politicize the bench, nor do I think see these proposals as anti-democratic,” Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “You don’t have to be liberal to be a democrat.”
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall